Album Review: Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen


Disclaimer: Bias will follow anything I write about Cursive. The Ugly Organ stubbornly protects the top spot on my “best of” list for the twenty-first century. I picked up the album a year or two after it came out. On a whim I mostly chalk up to the cool cover art, I popped in the disc.

Regardless, The Ugly Organ sunk its teeth into me the first time around. Deep. It ripped flesh out when those teeth pulled back — a good album makes you bleed a little bit and takes a little piece of you with it. To this day, when I listen to “Butcher the Song”, more often than not, dread crawls up the back of my neck when I hear, “‘What a lovely day,’ says the butcher as he raises his arm.” And the strident organ fades out with the song.

Cursive has always been a heady band, with double entendre always around the corner, but above all, Cursive is earnest. Tim Kasher revels in painful honesty whether it be a dissolved marriage (Domestica), religion gone wrong (Happy Hollow), or in this case, existence itself on Mama, I’m Swollen, Cursive’s latest and (nearly) greatest.

“From the Hips” deconstructs and laments the state of communication and knowledge itself. (“We’re at our worst when it’s from our lips”). Semantics and post-modernism have made conversation tiring and difficult for Tim Kasher. “I hate this damn enlightenment / We were better off as animals / We’re at our best when it’s from our hips” brings a new spin to the maxim “Make love not war.” If words make war and our hips make love… A hopelessness pervades the tune.  Is the best we can expect a roll in the hay, a chemical explosion in our brain that keeps us in a moment where we don’t have to think anymore? The song strips away any semblance of pretense. It’s hard to tell if Cursive is questioning post-modernity itself or simply lamenting that we ever became aware of such ways of thinking.

All this thinking and honesty can weigh a song down–but not “From the Hips”. Watch Cursive rip apart the stage on Letterman. It’s a song that feeds on a live audience. When Kasher first sings, “I want to scream it from the foaming mouth,” he’s not foaming or screaming. By the time he’s made it through the chorus a couple of times, he sounds like he’s exorcising demons: a conversation turns into a shouting match. When his voice starts to break, and he continues to push it to see how far it’ll go, you can hear the agony. Cue the horns.

On The Ugly Organ, the strings made the difference. On Happy Hollow, it was horns. The tradition continues with horns on Mama. The ace in the hole for Cursive has always been there inventive instrumentation. Without diving into math rock, Cursive keeps a listener guessing. There are days when I wonder if Cursive sold their soul for a page out of the Brian Wilson playbook.

The album begins with a mantra. “Don’t want to live in the now / Don’t want to know what I know.” It repeats and repeats on “In the Now”. Cursive has never been a sunny band, but they are at their darkest – which should send off warning bells – to long-time followers. This isn’t an album for suicides, Prozac patients, or hopeless nihilists. Hide the razor blades and lengths of rope. Call the group therapy hotline.

Where Happy Hollow suffered from a lack of subtlety, and The Ugly Organ fed off of it, Mama, I’m Swollen is somewhere between the two. Kasher is at his best lyrically when he turns the pen on himself. It’s rarely pretentious or overly self-involved, and he has an eerie gift for taking the pulse of his listener simultaneously with his own. The first half of Mama, I’m Swollen is fairly straightforward, but it revels in painful honesty. The second half is more obtuse, but it recalls some of the better stories Kasher told on The Ugly Organ.

Mama, I’m Swollen is without a doubt Cursive’s best since The Ugly Organ; however, Mama is not the monument that Organ is. A band will very rarely make more than one perfect record. The fact that Cursive has already made theirs is a strike against Mama in that regard. In other comparisons, Mama, I’m Swollen is in the top two or three albums (out of twenty-plus) I’ve heard since January. It’s solid; the kind of album that really deserves to be picked up at your local indie record store (if you still have one) instead of downloaded from iTunes. Mama‘s the kind of album where you need to thumb through the cover art the first couple of times you listen to it; a CD that scratches quickly from being passed around between friends, and one of the few CDs that still deserves to be paid for in full.